Delia Murphy was born on 16th February 1902 at Hollymount, near Claremorris, Co. Mayo. The people of Belfast remember her for her heroic performance on Easter Tuesday 1941.
Her father Jack had been part of the Klondike gold rush of the 1890s. While mining silver in Colorado, USA, he met Anna Fanning from Roscrea, Co. Tipperary. The couple married and returned to Ireland in 1901 to Mount Jennings, a Georgian mansion in Co. Mayo where a young Delia grew up.
There, she learned folk ballads from travelers who camped nearby. She also learned from local people, Revivalist songbooks, and books of popular songs. She sang in her school choir and at the Presentation Convent in Tuam. While studying at University College Galway, she met TJ Kiernan, a local tax inspector. The pair married in Dublin in 1924.
Marriage to Kiernan
Not long after their marriage, Kiernan transferred to the new Irish Diplomatic Service. He became Secretary to the Irish Free State High Commissioner in London. As his wife, Delia Murphy sang at diplomatic gatherings and social occasions. While in London, Kiernan received a PHD from University College London in 1930. TJ and Delia’s four children were born in London before the couple returned to Dublin, Ireland in 1935.
In Dublin, Kiernan took the position of Director of Broadcasting with Radio Éireann. He was responsible for cultural and literary programmes on the radio for the next six years. As his wife, Delia Murphy often sang on many of the station’s programmes.
Delia Murphy records on HMV
In 1936, Murphy met with Leslie Thorn who had come to Ireland to set up a branch of HMV in Waterford. He invited her to London to record ‘The Moonshiner’, ‘The Roving Journeyman’, and ‘The Banks Of My Own Lovely Lee’. These songs, published by Walton’s remain in the National Library in the United Kingdom.
In 1937, Murphy appeared in the film ‘West Of Kerry’, which was later recut as ‘The Islandman’ and ‘Eileen Aroon’. She played the part of Peig and performed ‘Paddy Lynch’s Boat’ in a ceilidh scene. This would be Delia Murphy’s only foray into film. She continued as a celebrated singer. Murphy recorded ‘The Blackbird’, ‘The Spinning Wheel’, and ‘Three Lovely Lassies From Bannion’. These songs increased her popularity before the outbreak of war in 1939.
A hero of the Belfast Blitz
On Easter Tuesday 15th April 1941, around 200 tonnes of explosives fell on the city of Belfast. Over 900 people lost their lives. Thousands lost their homes. Through all the hellish chaos, Delia Murphy played on in the city’s Ulster Hall. The event was a ceilidh organised by St Malachy’s Gaelic Athletic Club.
The crowd packed the venue to the rafters with many people standing at the back or seated on the floor. At around 1130hrs, she finished what should have been her last song. Soldiers stood by the doors as the crowd went to leave. The fire warden warned that German planes were over the Co. Down coast and that no one was to leave until the alarm was over.
In an RTÉ interview in 2011, a 91-year-old Blitz survivor called Rita Brown remembered the night. She was one of many who remained in the hall as the singer continued her show. Some fled the venue as the air raid sirens sounded.
Memories of 1941
On the 70th anniversary of the blitz, Belfast man Leo Wilson remembered the night. He spoke with the Belfast Telegraph and the Somme Historical Association. Aged 18, he and Harry Kavanagh had been watching Delia Murphy sing at the Ulster Hall ceilidh. They made friends with the local fire warden at the show. The warden allowed them to the roof of the building on Bedford Street to witness the devastation.
The planes were buzzing round like nobody’s business. We looked over towards east Belfast and it was like Dante’s inferno. The whole place seemed to be blazing away. There didn’t seem to be any place that wasn’t on fire. Heavy smoke and bombs falling. Then, we looked towards the north of the city and York Street must have been pounded to dust because it was in flames too. And, we looked to the west where we lived and we could see the big spires of St Peter’s Cathedral outlined against a background of smoke and flames and planes. It might sound harsh and selfish but when we saw St Peter’s outlined against a background of flames we realised there were no flames in front of it and we lived in that parish. That afforded us some feeling of relief.
Leo Wilson, Blitz Survivor, 15th April 2016
Delia Murphy continued to sing throughout the raid. She finished only when the explosions faded. She remained calm and saved lives, convincing people to stay inside. The crowd sang and danced through the night until almost 0500hrs. This was Belfast’s “Blitz Spirit” moment.
As the crowds left for home, they saw horrific sights greeting them. Some returned to homes in places like Percy Street finding friends and family killed in the shelters.
Delia in Italy
Dr Kiernan returned to his diplomatic postings as Irish Ambassador to the Holy See in late 1941. Delia accompanied him to Rome, Italy. She became friends with many Irish priests and seminarians in The Vatican. She assisted Father Spike Buckley and the Vatican Pimpernel – Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty – in saving Jews from the Nazis. Many of the Irish in Rome and the Vatican remained cut off with the outbreak of war.
With Mussolini’s surrender in 1943, thousands of Allied prisoners became free in Italy. The Irish helped many of the soldiers, sailors, and airmen to escape before Germany reoccupied the country.
After the war, in 1946, Dr Kiernan and Delia moved to Australia where he became Irish Ambassador. Delia Murphy was popular with Australian crowds singing at diplomatic occasions. On beginning his second term, Kiernan remained in Australia. Delia returned to her native Ireland. With her children grown up, she resumed her singing career touring clubs and ballrooms across the UK and Ireland.
She reveled in her larger than life reputation, appearing in ‘The Harp’, ‘The Blarney’, and ‘The Talk Of The Town’. On playing the Galway Club in Camden Town she walked in arm in arm with Sligo boxer Joe Quigley. The pair marched behind the Innisfail Pipe Band from Chalk Farm underground station to the venue.
The move to Canada
In 1957, Delia Murphy moved to Canada as Kiernan became Irish Ambassador there. Until 1960, they lived in a small farmhouse in Jasper, fifty miles from Ottawa. The couple then moved to Washington where they counted John and Jackie Kennedy among their friends. Kiernan retired from diplomatic service in 1963. He worked for the Irish-American Foundation in New York City until his death in 1967. During this time, Delia remained in Jasper, Canada. There, she recorded her only record, ‘The Queen Of Connemara’ with Kenny Goldstein.
The mammy of them all
Author Aidan O’Hara introduced Delia as “the mammy of them all” to the Clancy Brothers in 1968. To Paddy, Tom, and Liam Clancy she was a great inspiration.
We grew up in the height of what could be called “The National Inferiority Complex” in Ireland. Irish people were very sensitive to the pig-in-the-parlour, ‘dirty Irish’ image, and ashamed of their own music and songs. But what we must remember about Delia Murphy was the context of the times when she started recording. We were coming out of desperate poverty, and it wasn’t fashionable anymore to sing ballads, or come-all-ye’s, as my mother used to call them. But there was Delia Murphy. She gave us all a feeling of confidence, a feeling of value, that there was something to our traditions, and that we had no need to be ashamed of it because she wasn’t. And she became a heroine and the most popular singer in the country.
In 1969, Delia Murphy returned to Ireland, to a cottage near the Strawberry Beds in Dublin. She died of a heart attack after health complications on 11th February 1971. Her death came not long after her final television appearance on ‘The Late Late Show’ with Gay Byrne.